An Argument Against Narcan

There are good arguments for it, & terrible arguments against it; here's another to consider ...

By H.K. Slade   |   Mar 9, 2017

[Publisher’s Note: At Calibre Press we appreciate a diversity of opinion. After all, there are more than 18,000 police agencies and 800,000 officers in this large and varied nation. It goes without saying that the views expressed on CalibrePress.com belong to the author, and agencies and officers must regardless do what is best for their communities.]

One of the most divisive arguments in law enforcement today concerns whether or not patrol officers should be required to carry Narcan (Naloxen). There are good arguments on both sides of the issue, but I believe they all miss a central point: Police get in trouble when we do non-police jobs.

Let me give a bit of background before I dive into this topic. I’m a working patrol officer in a mid-size city. My beat is adjacent to a large university and is comprised mostly of student apartments and government subsidized housing. I respond to several heroin overdoses a year. In my county, fire and EMS are dispatched to overdose calls at the same time as police. Since 2013, we have had a Good Samaritan Law in place that essentially grants immunity from drug-related prosecution to victims and reporting parties on overdose calls.

The Arguments

The most common argument I’ve heard for police officers carrying Narcan is that it will save lives and “cops are in the life-saving business.” It’s a powerful argument. It’s an emotional argument. It is also a flawed argument, in my opinion.

In most areas, EMS and fire carry Narcan with them to overdose calls. If they’re dispatched at the same time as police to the call, then the drug will be on-scene and the argument is simply about who gets to carry it.

It’s a check to our collective ego, but we as cops have to start accepting that some life-saving functions are better carried out by non-police. There are calls where a ladder or a rifle will save lives, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that EMTs should carry ladders and firefighters AR-15s. Every responder has an essential function to perform at the scene of emergency, and while there is some overlap, when units start driving outside of their lane it inevitably causes them to neglect their primary responsibility.

There are some agencies where there’s a delay in EMS response, and those departments need to approach the issue differently. In my area, however, EMS is usually the first unit on an overdose call. The question an administration considering requiring their officers to carry Narcan should be asking their patrol officers is: “Do you respond to OD calls where the subject passes away between the time you arrive and the time EMS is on scene?”

If the answer comes back “never,” then is the proposal really about saving lives or about public relations?

Often, the argument against Narcan is presented in terms of the worth of a heroin addict’s life. It’s understandable coming from a street officer. Street officers see the same people again and again on overdose calls. Street officers see the victims of an addict’s crimes. Street officers watch as addicts, the same ones saved by Narcan, go on to help addict a new generation of users. It’s a powerful argument, an emotional one, and a flawed one.

We as police officers don’t get to choose the lives we effect. We have to be the same police to everyone we meet and there’s no room in the job for us to pass judgment on the worth of someone’s life. It’s not the best part of the job, but it’s what we signed up for.

A Better Argument Against

Every successful company or organization has a mission statement. It can be as simple as, “Sell the most widgets,” or as complex as, “Provide the materials necessary for a forward operating unit to accomplish its objectives.” But a mission statement provides focus. When an organization loses focus, trouble follows. For an example of this you just have to look on the internet for videos of police officers trying to enforce classroom discipline. It rarely ends well.

Officers have years of training and experience in enforcing the law and making arrests. It takes a unique mindset and specialized skills. It’s not realistic to ask an officer to switch all of that off in an instant and become a medical professional. Where do we draw the line? Do officers carry Epipens? Anti-seizure medication? Nitroglycerin pills? These are things that can all save lives, too.

There is a finite (and is some places shrinking) amount of time for training, money for equipment, and space in a cop’s head. If departments want to require officers to carry Narcan, they must budget for training both in the use and liability of this medication. Policies must be developed and put into place to address what officers are supposed to do after administrating a dose of Narcan.

In my experience, subjects are rarely grateful or cooperative after being dosed, even if they have just been brought back from death’s door. Are officers to detain the subject until EMS arrives? Are they responsible for patient care if the subject just gets up and walks away? People pushing for officers to carry Narcan rarely address what goes on after a life has been saved. Ideally the patient gets the message and works, with help, to kick the habit. This rarely happens.

I have a friend who was a police officer back in the 90s. When we talk, I feel superior because I can use a bunch of computer systems to locate a suspect; I can name a dozen mental health conditions he’s never heard of; and I can testify for an hour on the intricacies of the standardized field sobriety tests.

That feeling of superiority lasts about a minute until I remember that he can spot a drug deal from 100 yards away; he could talk to the victim of a robbery for about 30 seconds and know it’s an inside job; and he could walk into a crowd at a bar and emerge with the suspect in a stabbing without saying a word.

It’s not that I’m smarter than him, nor he than me. He would not have been able to develop those skills to the level that he did if he’d had to write mental health referral reports or supplemental narratives on his body cam footage. There wouldn’t have been time.

No skill is free. Proponents of adding new responsibilities for their officers need to think in terms of “in place of” instead of “in addition to.” What skill will the knowledge of how to diagnose and administer treatment for an opiate overdose replace?

Conclusion

The debate about law enforcement officers caring anti-opioid medication should not be an argument over the value of human life. Instead, each individual community needs to decide if they want their police officers to be highly skilled and capable of handling the emergencies only police can handle, or more of a general handyman who can do a little bit of everything without being excellent at any one task.